Are People Irrational in a Disaster?

News today of the terrible nightclub fire in Perm, Russia, in which at least 109 people died in a blaze caused by stage pyrotechnics setting fire to inflammable decorations. From the AP report:

Video recorded by a clubgoer and shown on Russian television showed partygoers dancing, before sparks from pyrotechnic fountains on stage ignited the club’s ceiling around midnight. Witness Svetlana Kuvshinova told The Associated Press that the blaze swiftly consumed twigs decorating the ceiling. Russian clubs and restaurants often cover ceilings with plastic insulation and a layer of willow twigs to create a rustic look…

The video showed people reluctantly heading toward the exit, some of them turning back to look at the burning ceiling. Within seconds they started rushing away in panic as flames begin to spread faster.

“There was only one exit, and people starting breaking down the doors to get out,” said a woman who identified herself only as Olga, smeared with soot and wearing a filthy fur coat. “They were breaking the door and panic set in. Everything was in smoke. I couldn’t see anything.”

The catastrophe is eerily similar (as the AP story notes) to the Station nightclub fire that took place in Rhode Island in 2001, and which I describe in Chapter 11 of my book. In both cases, revelers milled about as the flames spread, then moved en masse towards the front door, where their bodies jammed the exits so that no one could escape. Those who didn’t die of smoke inhalation were crushed to death by the pressure of those pushing from behind.

In both cases, many or all of the patrons of the club would have survived had they left the club in an orderly fashion. Instead, it seems, they panicked and died — a case of fear provoking irrational and ultimately self-destructive behavior. Or is it?Many experts who study the psychology of disasters refute the widespread idea that panic spreads like a contagion when a group is faced with a life-or-death crisis. Indeed, they point out that if anything people are often too slow to react to evident danger. When they do react, they tend to react in an orderly fashion.

In reporting Extreme Fear, I spoke with Ian Thomas, an Australian professor who studies fire engineering, and who himself survived the worst forest fire in Australian history. “There’s the impression that people in building fires panic,” he said, “but in practice what’s been found is that people actually don’t panic, they spend most of their time making rational decisions. But when they do act, they act with limited information. And looking at it afterward,  it can appear that they’re making irrational decisions,  giving the appearance of panic. But if you don’t have information about what’s going to happen in the future, then all you can do is make the best decision you can at the time. And that decision may turn out to be wrong.”

In the case of both the Station nightclub fire and the more recent one in Russia, the patron’s decision to move towards the exit was perfectly rational. The problem was that everyone else was making the same decision at the same time. Indeed, given the reality of a single exit, there’s nothing any individual person could have done to improve their chances.

For the victims of the Station fire, hindsight cast a light on a cruel irony. There was not one exit to the club, but two. As the clubgoers piled upon one another in a fruitless attempt to escape through the front door, a side door remained unobstructed. Few thought to use it, because when they had come into the club they hadn’t bothered to check for fire exits. Under the pressure of the sudden fire, they didn’t have the time or the clear-headedness to look for another way out.

The moral of the story? When you’re in a theater or a nightclub, take a second to notice where the exits are. The chances are small you’ll ever need to use the knowledge. But if you do, the payoff could be enormous.